“You know Ashtanga was designed for teenage boys?” my friend said. I hadn’t heard that but I wasn’t surprised because it had struck me as designed for men, given all the upper body strength it requires. Arm support and abdominal strength help one jump back and forth (or walk lightly) for the sun salutations at the beginning, and in the vinyasas [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szgjDPgbvIg&w=560&h=315%5D that precede many of the postures. I have since learned that the origins of the practice are not so clear, and I know its important to remember that all traditions have complex histories: they grow and change. (Neglecting that consideration is part of the reasoning fallacy of appeal to tradition.) Perhaps part of Ashtanga’s development was to address the needs of adolescent boys, and men seem to be particularly keen on it because of its physical demands — it’s “macho yoga,” but … as the old soap commercial says, “I like it too!” [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjSNrg7T0Wo&w=420&h=315%5D
I’ve always enjoyed ashtanga, since I first spent a couple of months learning it at a shala in Palo Alto. I hadn’t heard any of the other myths about it. I was originally attracted by its aerobic challenge, but found the benefits of improving upper body and core strength keep me going back. Few other activities have been so empowering for me, except perhaps one summer job planting trees that also gave me good upper body strength (such that I ended up actually knocking down other women in my self-defense class – oops!). I can’t (yet) “float,” [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3j60azk9s_k&w=560&h=315%5D but Ashtanga does make me feel lighter and move with greater ease. My posture improved, my chiropractor remarked.
When my local yoga studio began to increase their Ashtanga offerings recently, I was excited. To get back into it I took part in a study of the effects of Ashtanga practice held at Downtown Yoga and run by yoga community leader Gina Wasserlein and University of Windsor psychologist Josee Jarry. As many of the participants in the nine-week study were undergraduate psychology students (as is the case for most psychology studies) the class tended to be tuned to the needs and abilities of young women — one teacher to my irritation remarked on all the “skinny girls”. I also find the whole first series and the pressure to practice six days a week a bit daunting. But it was exciting to be part of the research and among so many keen energetic people and I can gain different inspiration from the Jessamy Stanley who defy assumptions about yoga bodies.
My biggest complaints have been that I simply can’t twist like others can. The binds seem unreasonable given my belly. The jump through and floating seem absurd with my hips and butt. When I try to do plough – which used to be a favourite pose – my now substantial middle-aged boobs are squashed to my face and I seem to have some trouble breathing.
One class I had to hold back tears – it had been a bad day generally. I also injured my back pretty badly and it really hurt for a few weeks. Though I had never heard the myth that ashtanga is gymnastics, the tradition may well have been influenced by gymnastics, and it did strike me as yoga calisthenics. That misunderstanding is the reason why I hurt myself. (Remember, I was originally attracted by the aerobic aspect.) I was not focusing on my breath and my bhandas, the keys to strength in yoga;and my teachers (including Tammy Blaze) helped me through that. They also allowed me to see that my perceived breathing troubles may be more about claustrophobia (being trapped by my boobs) than anything else.
Patience and persistence provides part of the mental discipline of yoga. I’ve been glad I can now switch to a Mysore style practice where I follow the sequence of poses on my own, stop where I need to, and push myself where I can.
I’m also learning to trust the practice. Sure I need to adjust and mind my own physical peculiarities. I use a block for some asanas (poses). I’m not sure if I’ll ever get the binds that allow people to move into to the second-half of the first Ashtanga series. However, I’m noticing that the difficulty is less my boobs, belly, and butt than I thought. As my abdominal strength improves, as I work those twists, I can do a lot more on the mat — and everywhere else!